‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ is a poem that explores finding god in unexpected places. Betjeman watches a ‘Mistress’ who attends his church, admiring her beauty, clothes, and voice. He’s intrigued by this mystery woman, watching her each time they have mass together. The church’s preacher tells him not to ‘stare’ as it is a distraction. Yet, ‘odd[ly]’, Betjeman finds that seeing the mysterious woman actually gives him a ‘hint of the Unknown God’. He finds a subtle moment of God within the beautiful stranger.
Betjeman splits ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ into 6 equal stanzas. Each stanza is composed of a quatrain, measuring four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABCB, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyming.
John Betjeman was a Poet Laureate in the UK from 1972 until 1984, the year of his death. Due to this, there is lots of press and interviews around the poet which allows for routes of access into his poetry. Betjeman was recorded talking about the poem, stating that it is about ‘a lady I see but have never spoken to, in a London church.’ This church can be assumed to be Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair, which is where Betjeman frequently worshipped.
An interview with the Sunday Express gives us further insight into the poem, “She was the most beautiful creature… And I didn’t even know her name – but it was probably all the better for that. She might have been terrible.” This quotation furthers the idea generated within the poem that Betjeman is enthused by the mystery of the woman, taking pleasure in the fact she is anonymous.
You can read the full poem here.
Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican Analysis
Isn’t she lovely, “the Mistress”?
Her glance of amused surprise?
Betjeman opens ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ by addressing the reader directly. By imposing a question on the first line of his poem, he captures the attention of the audience. He poses the question directly to the reader, allowing them to think about the nature of ‘The Mistress’ as he then begins to describe her physical features.
The anonymous nature of the ‘Mistress’ elevates the sense of mystery that surrounds the woman. Her undisclosed identity posing as interesting to the poet. By not knowing who she is, she becomes a symbol of sexuality, she is beautiful and mysterious, someone who intrigues the other churchgoers.
Furthermore, the polysemic nature of the word ‘Mistress’ imbues the character with a further sense of mystery. On one hand, the ‘Mistress’ could be a reference to the prefix of a married woman. Yet, ‘Mistress’ also has connotations of an affair, with a Mistress being someone who is having an affair with a married man. This interpretation reflects upon Betjeman’s fascination of the woman, his forbidden desire for her being a focus here.
Once drawn in, Betjeman then focuses the reader on the physical features of the ‘Mistress’. He describes her eyes, lips and smile. The use of ‘droop’ conjures the idea of floral imagery when describing the lips. The typically feminine image furthers the elevation of the Mistress’ beauty, with the focusing on the physical over anything else echoing Betjeman’s sexualisation of the character.
How nonchalantly she wears her clothes,
As the Christ Church tenor bell.
Within this stanza, Betjeman focuses on the Mistress’s voice and what she is wearing. He focuses on how effortlessly she ‘wears her clothes’, flowing off her as she walks around the church. He also notes their material value, exclaiming ‘how expensive they are’. Betjeman wonders where this woman has gained all the money to wear beautiful clothes each week, this thought is extended into stanza three.
Betjeman elicits a link between the Mistress’ voice and the ‘Christ Church tenor bell’. This linking between religion and the woman is at the core of ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’. This odd connection between God and ‘The Mistress’ is the key theme for the poem, with this instant the first connection between the two. He binds the concepts together, allowing himself to stare at the woman because he believes it a subtle sight of God.
But why do I call her “the Mistress”
Than many a legal wife.
This stanza of ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ delves further into the mystery of the woman. Betjeman has no idea who she is, where she has come from, or who she is married to. This mystery is a key part of his fascination, with her allusive nature being attractive to Betjeman. Yet, he makes no attempt to get close to or talk to the woman, instead, he prefers to watch from afar and sustain the intrigued atmosphere.
How elegantly she swings along
When she kneels at the altar rail.
The movements of the Mistress are focused on in this stanza. We see her walking through the church, ‘elegant’ in stature as she moves to the front. This visual image of the Mistress walking through the church while another stare heightens the sense of her beauty.
Indeed, the impact she has on other people is the main focus for ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’. Betjeman jokes that the whole ‘choir must pause’ when she walks by, each of them stunned into silence by their beauty. The whole church is seemingly in agreement with Betjeman, the woman is mysterious, and in that mystery stems an element of her intrigue.
The parson said that we shouldn’t stare
May forever elude our search.
This stanza dwells on a comment which the ‘parson’ gives when he sees others in the church staring at the woman. He tells them to focus on their search for God, instead of watching the woman. The fact that Betjeman gives a sixth of his poem to voice the parson shows his respect for the religious community.
The fact that God is described as ‘Unknown’ furthers the connection between the Mistress and God. Both figures that Betjeman admires have a sense of mystery, both being undefinable. This concept of secrecy enthuses Betjeman. Perhaps the same reasons he is interested in the Mistress are an echo of a reason for his own faith.
But I hope that the preacher will not think
A hint of the Unknown God.
This stanza focuses further on the connection between the two figures. He argues that although the preacher has told him not to stare, he hopes he will be forgiven, for in the Mistress he sees a ‘hint of the Unknown God’ that he is looking for. The mystery of the woman is something that encapsulates the interest of Betjeman, the ‘Unknown’ nature of her being reflected in god.
The poem is one of watching, and there is very little movement apart from the woman. She is the focal point of the poem and therefore the only element which moves. The contrast between the ‘swinging’ movements of the woman and the still nature of the onlooking audience elevates this idea. Yet in this final stanza Betjeman realigns the poem with his religious beliefs, dispelling the more sexualised element of the poem. He focuses instead on the mystery and inexplicable nature of his faith, finding God in the mysterious woman. Diverging the voyeuristic poem into something that is more so a tribute to the mystery of religion, rather than to female sexuality.